In some cultures, the harp is considered a symbol of peace. In others, it’s a sign of royalty and wisdom. But for most people, the harp will always be an instrument that evokes imagery of angels playing divine music from heaven.
Harps have been around since ancient times- first being mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphics as early as 2300 BC- and they’ve remained a prevalent part of human culture ever since. Whether you’re reading scripture or singing your favorite song, there’s something about the sound of a harp that can make any moment more magical.
In this post, we’re going to look at some 15 of the greatest and most famous harp players throughout history. Let’s get started.
1. King David
King David’s harp is the most iconic and well-known harp in the history of the Judeo-Christian world.
Born in Bethlehem and a key figure in biblical history, King David was King of Israel from 101-970 BCE.
Documentation from the first testament book of Samuel proclaims King David’s proficiency as a harpist.
Not only would he play the harp to soothe and entertain his predecessor, King Saul, but he also composed psalms and designed the classical design of harps still used today.
He played a type of harp known as the Kinnor harp or the Harp of David, and images of King David and his harp have been painted and showcased throughout history.
2. Joanna Newsom
Born in 1982, Joanna Caroline Newsom is a northern California native.
She grew up playing classical harp and piano, becoming a keyboardist in the indie band The Pleased in San Francisco to mark the beginning of her musical career.
She then began writing, singing, and recording her own songs that earned her a contract with Drag City records who has produced the entirety of her discography, consisting of four successful albums released between 2004-2015.
Newsom’s music puts a modern twist on Appalachian folk music, and music experts categorize it as psychedelic folk or Indie folk.
Along with being a harpist, pianist, and vocalist, Newsom is also an actress and her most famous role was on the T.V. series Portlandia.
3. Loreena McKennitt
Loreena Isabel Irene McKennitt is a Canadian harpist, accordionist, pianist, composer, and vocalist who produces and performs Celtic and Middle Eastern style music.
She has written the lyrics and composed the music on nine albums, four of which have earned platinum status in the U.S. and Canada.
Furthermore, her album “Troubadours on the Rhine” earned her a Grammy nomination in 2012.
While her talent as a harpist and instrumentalist is undeniable, she is best known for her voice, a clear and polished soprano singing heartfelt and profound lyrics.
She has sold more than 14 million records globally, a testament to her international acclaim.
4. Alice Coltrane
Born in Detroit as Alice McLeod, Alice Coltrane was an accomplished harpist and pianist long before meeting and marrying the famed jazz musician John Coltrane.
Alice Coltrane studied classical piano under the tutelage of Bud Powell before returning to Detroit to begin her career as a jazz musician in various trios and duos, until signing on with John Coltrane’s group in 1965 and marrying Coltrane in ’66.
She has three children from a previous marriage, and her son John Cotrane Jr. died in a car accident in 1982.
Her musical career ventured into Eastern meditative music as she became a follower of Eastern religion, adopting the name Swami Turyasangitananda.
5. Andreas Vollenweider
Andreas Vikkebweider is a Swiss harpist, instrumentalist, and composer whose music ranges from Classical to Jazz to World music.
His albums are equally eclectic, with an impressive discography of a whopping 24 albums recorded since 1979.
As a testament to his multi-genre appeal, two of his albums reached number 1 on Billboards in the musical categories of Classical, Jazz, Pop, and Crossover all at the same time.
He often plays accompanied by whole orchestras, duos, by himself, or lets a group of featured artists play the music he composes on his albums.
His most noteworthy music is mainly instrumental, although he has dabbled in vocals on rare occasions.
6. Dorothy Ashby
Born Dorothy Jeanne Thompson in Detroit, Dorothy Ashby was a harpist and composer specializing in jazz music and deemed one of the most talented modern jazz harpists in history.
Ashby brought the harp out from behind its strictly orchestral background denomination and into the limelight of improvisational jazz and bebop.
She came from a family of musicians and grew up playing the saxophone, bass, piano, and harp.
She continued to add new instruments to her repertoire throughout her musical career.
She played with many jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, and her husband, Jon Ashby, was the drummer in her group.
She also formed a theater company for which she wrote, starred, and composed musical plays.
She was a pillar for the Black community and continues to be a significant musical influence in jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music.
7. Beste Toparlak
Beste Toparlak is a Turkish harpist and soloist who began studying music with famed pianist Yevgenia Tarasova at age 8, entering the Turkish Ankara State Conservatory in 1999.
She eventually graduated with a degree in Harp in 2009.
She then earned a Master’s Degree in Harp, studying at the Austrian music conservatory Hochschule fur Musik und Theater.
She has since played with many orchestras around Turkey, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
She now lives in the U.S. and performs in various North Carolina Orchestras and East coast ensembles.
8. Akiko Shikata
Japanese native Akiko Shikata is a multi-talented musician, composer, singer, and songwriter who began recording music in 2001, producing numerous studio albums, video game soundtracks, and singles that run the musical genre gamut.
Music experts and critics have categorized her music as world music, experimental, jazz, new age, classical, ambient, Japanese pop, world fusion, and neoclassical darkwave.
She plays harp, piano, and synth, and her first EP, “Sleeping Bird in the Green Forest,” is a remix of her voice over a synthesizer.
She has also composed soundtracks of various anime series.
Her vocals are in various languages such as Italian, Japanese, and a language of her own invention called Luripuka.
Her most widely acclaimed album is the vocal album Ruins and Heave, in which she draws from traditional and classical European music.
Her most current album noAno debuted in 2019.
9. Lavinia Meijer
Lavinia Meijer is a world-renowned harpist from the Netherlands who began studying harp at age 11 at the elite Utrecht Conservatory until graduating with a degree in music in 2003.
She then continued her musical education at the Amsterdam Conservatory, earning a Master’s degree in music in 2005.
Her highly successful career has garnered worldwide acclaim and numerous awards and fellowships.
She has toured the world as a harpist and soloist for prestigious orchestras such as the Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Radio Chamber Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, to name a few.
10. Cécile Corbel
Cecile Corbel is a harpist and singer from Pont-Croix, France, who has an eclectic repertoire of World music and traditional folk music from various countries.
She sings in numerous languages, including French, English, Breton, Italian, Gaelic, Japanese, and Turkish.
She adapts the harp’s Celtic and traditional Mediterranean compositions, combining the melodies with ancient poems from similar regions and periods.
She also collaborated with the famous Japanese production company Studio Ghibli, writing the music for the 2010 movie, The Secret World of Arrietty.
11. Órla Fallon
Originally named Orlagh Fallon, Orla Fallon is an Irish harpist and Irish folk music performer.
Their music and vocals have earned her audiences from famous world figures such as the pope and the president of Ireland and prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall.
She initially played in a Celtic group known as Celtic Woman before branching out on her own to record her debut album, The Water is Wide in 2000, earning her worldwide acclaim.
Her vocals are nearly exclusively in Gaelic.
Along with her solo career, she has also participated in musical projects with the group The Duggans.
12. Alan Stivell
Born Alan Chochevelou in Riom, France, Alan Stivell is one of the foremost Breton musicians of the modern age.
He popularized the forgotten Breton harp and brought Celtic music back on the world music radar in the 1970s.
He is also a Celtic singer and plays various other Celtic instruments such as the bombarde, biniou, and flute.
His most influential album is “Renaissance of the Celtic Harp,” which was released in 1971.
He is also a powerful performer and recorded his live performances to his album “A l’Olympia.”
13. Arianna Savall
Born in Basel, Switzerland, to Catalan musician parents Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras, Arianna Savall began formal training in harp at ten years old in conjunction with vocal training in her parent’s native Cataluña metropolis of Barcelona.
Her educational and professional training in voice and harp features tutorship of world-renowned classical, traditional, and operatic musicians, meanwhile performing as an opera singer and harpist in Switzerland and France.
She also participates in reconstructive musical projects that attempt to recreate musical compositions from ancient Greece.
14. Valérie Milot
Born in Quebec, Canada, Valerie Milot is a harpist and soloist whose impeccable technique has earned her one of the most prestigious awards in classical music that no harpist has received in a century: the Prix d’Europe.
She has won numerous other prizes in Canadian, American, and European competitions between 2004 and 2009.
She performs as a soloist for various orchestras and modern harp composers.
15. Amy Turk
Amy Turk is a British harpist, composer, and session artist who has brought harp into the pop music and percussion realm.
She transcribes and arranges classical music and composes music and vocal arrangements for video games like The Legend of Zelda.
She records and performs with many renowned artists from the comfort of her home and posts recordings on Instagram and Facebook to reach a wider audience.
Summing up our List of Famous Harpists
With that, we’ve reached the end of this article on fifteen famous harpists. We hope you enjoyed learning about these talented musicians and their amazing accomplishments in music!
There are many more great harpists out there who deserve recognition for their contributions to music so let us know who we should add to our list.